Published in the SF Chronicle on Sunday, April 17, 2005. Written by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va) who is the author of the legislation creating the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.
Only 30 years ago, gambling was illegal in most states and was generally considered to be a vice contrary to the American work ethic. Serious gamblers had to travel to Nevada to visit a casino and the states had not yet plunged into lottery mania.
Today, more than 800 casinos operate in 28 states. The lottery is played in 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, and all but two states -- Hawaii and Utah -- have legalized some form of gambling. Gambling expansion has swept the nation, with revenues jumping from about $1 billion in 1980 to well over $70 billion today, according the National Council on Problem Gambling. That means Americans lose on average more than $191 million every day of the year from gambling.
What has the spread of gambling meant for this country? According to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, some 15.4 million Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling. The National Academies of Science found that pathological gamblers engage in destructive behaviors: They commit crimes; run up large debts; damage relationships with family and friends; and commit suicide.
Youths introduced to gambling are particularly at high risk, and the percentages of young people who are pathological and problem gamblers are double the adult rates. The earlier children start to gamble, the more likely they are to develop a gambling problem. More than 70 percent of kids between ages 10 and 17 have gambled -- on bingo, lotto tickets or poker with friends -- in the past year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. That's up from 45 percent in 1988.
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which I pushed Congress to establish, estimated that direct gambling costs (bankruptcy, drain on social services, etc.) borne by the government are about $5 billion per year. That does not count the indirect costs of compulsive gamblers, such as divorce and the breakup of families. Then add the human-misery quotient derived from the explosion of various forms of gambling across America, and you get a vicious cycle as the need for social services dramatically increases.
Small businesses are also losers as consumer spending shifts away from goods and services. The political process also can be tainted. The National Gambling Commission concluded that local and state governments tend to become "dependent" partners with the gambling industry, relying on its vast funds and influenced by campaign contributions and program support. In state after state, the gambling industry bankrolls local politicians from both parties in hopes of advancing its interests, leaving opponents out-financed, out-gunned and out- manned.
Gambling often leads to corruption. The Washington Post last month reported that less than six months from the date Pennsylvania legalized the expansion of slot-machine gambling, the mayor of Erie was charged with criminal conspiracy, conflict of interest and other corruption-related counts for allegedly trying to enrich himself through a land deal at a proposed gambling site.
The fact that gambling has not spread further is a tribute to the tireless efforts of a few grassroots activists. These citizen advocacy efforts -- regularly outspent -- have held the levy against further encroachment by the gambling industry into every community in America.
But over the last decade, the gambling industry has often played another card. Instead of going through the normal legislative channels, it has enlisted our nation's Native Americans, who, because of their sovereignty, can operate casinos on their land. Indian casinos are the fastest growing form of gambling today.
Our federal policy toward Native Americans is troubling. While a few tribes have become enriched, nearly 80 percent of all Native Americans receive nothing from gambling. The vast majority of Native Americans live in areas where casinos are simply not viable. What kind of federal policy rewards a few people living in population centers while the rest languish? One casino in Calaveras County actually has only one adult member of the tribe. Thousands of Native Americans live in the Great Plain states and receive nothing.
Defenders of Indian gambling never seem to talk about this disparity. It is time to face the evidence that gambling is bad for families, bad for business and bad for communities. More important, it is time for America's leaders to step forward and seriously address the proliferation of gambling, as laid out in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.